The first McCain volunteer I met was Mary, 74, a Republican precinct captain from Blue Springs. When I walked into the campaign headquarters at 3600 Noland Road in Independence, she said she was surprised to see me because I was young, and young people go for Obama.
"I don't always agree with people my age," I told her.
It was early afternoon on a Monday in late September, and we were the only two people at the phone bank. Damaged tables of prefabricated wood stood end to end around the drab office space. On the tables were phones and miniature white laptops.
A week earlier, I'd seen a flier calling for McCain volunteers. When I arrived at the headquarters, the local campaign chair, an affable, bearded man named Brian, showed me how the call system worked. Other than getting my name, phone number and address, he asked few questions.
I soon learned that no one liked working the phones. The computer gave us a list of registered voters. Our job was to call and ask people whom they were voting for and to verify their address, but not try to convince them of anything.
"I always thought of Blue Springs as pretty upscale," Mary said, making conversation. "But some of the people that came in for the primaries, I'd look at them and think, Are you really from here? Are you sure you live here? I guess they did, but they sure didn't look like it."
Were they for John McCain or Barack Obama?
"Obama. There were a lot of African-Americans."
That day, the computer was giving us rural numbers and a few in the suburbs of St. Louis. Out of every 10 calls, maybe three people answered. Most politely answered my questions. Occasionally, I'd get a lecture.
"I don't think I need to tell you who I'm voting for. Who are you voting for?" one man asked.
"Straight Republican ticket for me, sir."
"Hmm, well, I taught government for 30 years. Seems like voting a straight ticket is a good way to get into trouble, don't you think? I myself try to educate and inform myself and others on the issues. As a government teacher, you realize how few people pay attention, and it's very sad."
"Do you like McCain or Obama, then?"
"You need to educate yourself!" He hung up.
Sometimes there would be calls from people who wanted me to talk to McCain about a law that needed changing. They were certain I could reach him.
At the end of my first day, a friend of Mary's joined us. Her name was Carolyn.
"Have you seen this?" she asked. In her hand was a printed e-mail. "It's about Obama being with the Muslims."
The papers listed passages supposedly taken from Obama's book, Dreams From My Father. There was a stack of the printouts in the office.
I found a solace in nursing a pervasive sense of grievance and animosity against my mother's race, read one of the quotes. I will stand with the Muslims should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.... This sort of thing went on for three pages.
(Later I checked the excerpts. Some were total fabrications; others were quoted out of context to appear more radical.)
Mary gasped. "You know, I hate to say anyone's a Muslim no matter what party they're in, especially without proof. But, him, I just don't know ... "
Carolyn nodded solemnly.
The next time I went to the office, the windows had been smashed out with a rock half the size of a football.